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Barnesville Pumpkin Festival in Belmont County welcomes old, new friends

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK Crowds turn out Friday for the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival.

BARNESVILLE — The Barnesville Pumpkin Festival headed into the weekend with swelling crowds and the return of a favorite attraction.

Gus Smithhisler of Pataskala, Ohio the “squashcarver” visited to create his art. Smithhisler has made a name for himself with the elaborate and detailed scenes he carves into large pumpkins. He was a hit during his first appearance at the festival in 2019 with his patriotic-themed carving.

“I’m hoping to be a regular part of the festival now,” he said. “The people here are fantastic — very helpful, very welcoming, excited that I was here. Very appreciative of the work I did. … This is my time of year, doing the fall festivals, doing the zoos.”

Smithhisler had been disappointed at being unable to present in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the festival.

“The pandemic knocked out everything,” he said.

This year, Smithhisler carved a pastoral farm scene.

“We were thinking we wanted to do something happy. We wanted to bring people’s spirits up,” he said. “Something lively. … Do a farm scene, something light and happy.”

In 2019, the parade theme was World War II veterans. In honor of the occasion, Smithhisler carved the famous flag-raising scene at Iwo Jima.

“It was really rewarding,” he said.

Smithhisler said early on in his pumpkin-carving career he decided to concentrate on scenes rather than more common faces and Halloween themes. He got his start when growing giant pumpkins and began carving them for fun at the Indiana State Fair. He later learned about the art of pumpkin carving, but he is mainly self-taught.

“Probably the most challenging one I’ve done was an eagle for the Columbus Zoo,” he said.

Since the pumpkin carvings are temporary, people have only a short window to view them directly.

“All I have left are photos. The pumpkins, if you carve them, they generally last only a couple days,” he said. He added there are many online resources and helpful carvers ready to give advice to anyone wishing to get into the hobby.

“I think it’s amazing,” his son, Jack Smithhisler, said.

This year, he worked on an 800-plus-pound gourd donated by Barnesville-area grower Dan Stephens.

Keith Williams, vice president of the festival committee, said Smithhisler is a welcome addition to the lineup.

“It’s amazing. I don’t know how it’s possible to do anything like that. He’s really, really good at what he does,” Williams said.

The carving will be auctioned off and the funds donated to a worthwhile cause. In 2019 the pumpkin carving was auctioned for more than $1,000, donated to the village VFW.

Williams said the festival started slow the first two days, likely because of cool, wet weather, but the crowds and traffic began to grow as the festival went into the weekend.

“It’s really looking good,” he said.

He added that the number of participants in the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off was high, and a new state record was broken by Jeff Theil of Dillonvale, the King Pumpkin winner with a 2,195-pound gourd.

“This year we had a lot of our return growers,” Williams said.

Many visitors from near and far were overjoyed at the return of the festival.

“It’s wonderful, you can’t beat it. It’s a good time,” Tim Ollom of the Clarington area said, adding that the festival was welcome after last year’s cancellation. “People have come here for years. … People worked all year round getting things ready for this event, and then it got shut down. That was sad. … There’s people I’ve worked with that come here that I ain’t seen for years. … It’s a nice location and a beautiful town.”

“We try to come every year,” Stacy Ollom of Cameron, Ohio said.

Trista Lucas of Caldwell said she enjoys visiting family in the area.

“This is my hometown. I can’t go without the Pumpkin Festival. It’s just so much fun,” Gracy Hayslett of Magnolia, Ohio, said. “I missed it because it didn’t happen (last year), but I’m happy it’s back.”

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